Future Humanities conference reflections

I recently attended an incredibly thought-provoking conference hosted by McGill’s Institute for the Public Life of Arts and Ideas (IPLAI) as part of its Future Humanities project. This project is a response to the reality that only a small fraction of people with PhDs earn positions as tenured or tenure-track professors (as little as 10% in some estimations). Graduate students, professors, college/university administrators, and people from government, non-profits, and for-profit institutions attended the conference. Presentations and discussions centered on how graduate education in the humanities in Canada could be reformed to better prepare students to transition to non-academic jobs. We also considered how to increase the public profile of the humanities by making our work more relevant to people outside of academia.

Future humanities logo

Image taken from http://futurehumanities.org/

I have been involved with the Future Humanities project for the past several months, participating in a video of grad students’ “visions” for the future of the humanities (see screenshot below) and helping to plan conference events targeted to grad students. I was eager to see my work come to fruition, but I also felt some trepidation before the conference started. At times, I have found it disheartening and stress provoking to think about the limited likelihood of getting a tenure-track position after spending six years (so far) working full time on my PhD, so I was worried that the conference might decrease my morale and motivation to finish my thesis.

visions video

Screenshot taken from https://youtu.be/ArwF50fDyPE (3’40’’ in)

Despite my initial worries, I very much enjoyed attending the conference and was surprised that it left me with a more positive attitude about my work. Much of this was the result of the opening workshop for graduate students on “Navigating the Non-Academic Job Market.” This workshop was led by Anne Krook, a consultant with a PhD in English who has spent much of her career working outside academia. Because of her experience shifting from academic to non-academic work, Dr. Krook was able to give us very practical advice on how to make that shift ourselves. I appreciated the attention she devoted to how to converse with non-academic employers about the skills one has gained in academia (in sum, you need to focus on how your skills will benefit the employer). Dr. Krook also affirmed the value of our degrees, telling us that we are gaining skills in critical thinking, researching, and writing that many institutions value, not just academic ones. It’s nice to know that my dissertation does not need to be “perfect” or lead to a tenure-track job in order for writing it to be a valuable experience.

There were many presentations and discussions at the conference, and I cannot do justice to all of them in a blog post (it is my understanding, though, that videos of the conference will soon be archived on this website if you would like to watch them to get a fuller sense of what we discussed). I’d like to spend the remainder of this post summarizing some key issues that were raised in the presentations and discussions.

One point of disagreement among attendees was how to best reform graduate education in the humanities. Some felt it was important to make education more interdisciplinary to give students more opportunities to connect with people outside of their disciplinary “silos”—others felt disciplinary depth is crucial in training critical-thinking skills applicable to many jobs. Some argued passionately that professional development and training for non-academic jobs should be integrated into program requirements—others felt they should be add-on certificates for students to pursue if they are interested. Some felt theses should be shorter and more directly oriented towards “real-world” applications—others felt the PhD thesis is still valuable in its current format. And so and so on.

With so many different views offered, it was next to impossible to decide what the “right” answers were. Given this mess of possible solutions, I increasingly felt that the best way to reform graduate education in the humanities would be to make it more flexible and individualized, so that students can pick the “right” solutions for themselves. If students want specific types of training that they think will be valuable for their future career(s), they should be able to integrate this into their degree. Students should be able to have mentors from both within and outside of academia who are able to help them get what they want out of their education, whether it be an academic job or something else. If graduate education in the humanities becomes more individualized and students have mentors both within and outside of the academy, they will be able to identify fulfilling non-academic careers and prepare themselves for these careers.

One frequently discussed topic was the idea that academic humanists should make their work more relevant to people outside of academia. An underlying assumption of this idea, it seemed, was that if non-academics feel the humanities are valuable, they will be more likely to hire people with graduate degrees in the humanities. I appreciate the logic behind this assumption, but I also feel that our discussions of how to make the humanities more publicly oriented were sometimes too narrow. It was often implied that the humanities are most relevant to society at large when they are focused on solving tangible, “real-world” problems. For example, one presenter talked about how her doctoral thesis in law is aimed at figuring out how to create laws to better respond to and prevent human rights abuses. Of course, studying a topic like this has tremendous value, but I think focusing only on solving problems is too limiting. Research in the visual and performing arts, for instance, is often not oriented towards solving such tangible problems, yet it nonetheless can have tremendous relevance and value for society at large given that many people are passionate about music, theatre, literature, film, etc. The arts can create unique connections between scholarship and people outside of academia. I was somewhat disappointed, then, that the arts were not discussed as much at the conference as other areas of the humanities. In the future, I think the project ought to engage more with the visual and performing arts.

I also felt our discussions of the so-called “public humanities” were narrow in that they tended to focus on research. Teaching and service to the university are significant components of the jobs of academic humanists, and it seems that they too offer avenues for engaging general audiences in the humanities. For example, many professors in my field, musicology, wind up teaching large music appreciation courses taken exclusively by non-music majors who are passionate about music and curious to learn more about it. There is clearly room to advocate for the humanities with non-humanists in courses such as these.

Finally, I wish that a more diverse group of people attended the conference. About 80% of the attendees were grad students, professors, or college/university administrators. Of the 20% who were not, nearly all had PhDs. I can only guess what innovative ideas we would have heard had more people from outside academia participated, or more people who do not have or are not currently working towards graduate degrees had come to the conference. I do now have a greater understanding of how non-academics view academia, but I bet my understanding would be even greater had more non-academics participated in the conference. In addition, I was surprised that staff from student career development centers did not give presentations, as I imagine they would have unique insights stemming from their experience helping students find non-academic jobs. I hope in the future that the Future Humanities project will reach out to a more diverse group of people, especially non-academics.

Despite these wishes, I am very glad that I attended the conference. I learned a tremendous amount and am excited to see how my career develops in the coming years, whether it be in academia or not.

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